British Regulation of Prostitution in Colonial India

Julia Shatz, Class of 2008

During January 2008, I traveled to London for ten days to conduct research for my thesis on the debates in England over the Empire’s regulation of prostitution in late nineteenth-century India. The British Government passed initial legislation to regulate prostitution in India in the 1860s in an effort to combat rising venereal disease rates among soldiers in the British army. After a strong movement against the regulation by moral reform activists in London, Parliament unanimously repealed the legislation in the late 1880s. My research looks at the years directly after the parliamentary repeal, when the Government of India passed its own legislation to regulate prostitution. My work focuses on the fissures that this new legislation opened between branches of the imperial government, the rise of a certain public health discourse on prostitution and venereal disease, and the relationship of that discourse to the moral reform movement in England.

London turned out to be a rich repository for information about all the various actors and institutions relating to the debates over this legislation; apparently, not even a sense of Victorian propriety could keep discussions of prostitution out of the Parliament, the public press, and personal correspondence. During my trip, I visited three archives: the British Library, the British Library’s Newspaper Collection, and the London Metropolitan University’s Women’s Library. At the British Library, I found dozens of letters, memoranda, and dispatches between military and civil officials in India and members of the home government in London discussing the effects of prostitution on the army and arguing over the appropriate way for the government to intercede. The British Library’s Newspaper Collection, housed at a separate location in Colindale, allowed me to explore Indian newspapers from my time period in order to understand the reactions of various segments of the Indian public to the regulatory legislation.

My third research destination—which happened to be the very first I visited—was the Women’s Library. This library has an amazing collection of anything and everything related to the anti-regulation moral reform movements. My specific goal in going to its archive—indeed, my original impetus to travel all the way to London—was a letter written by the leader of one of the moral reform movements detailing her intended cooperation with the Indian National Congress against the regulatory legislation. This letter may be one of the only pieces of concrete evidence that there was ever an alliance between the rising Indian nationalist movement and the pro-Empire moral reformers. The only proof I had of this letter’s existence was a single footnote in a journal article published over a decade ago when the archive in question had a different name. With only a footnote to go on, I approached the archive with some trepidation, convinced that the letter had disappeared—or worse, never existed—but on my second day of research, while scrolling through a roll of microfilm, there it was.

My trip to London was invaluable for my research, not only because it granted me access to new and important sources but also because in spending ten days interacting intensely with all different source types, I began to truly understand my thesis in a way I had not been able to previously. There were frustrations, to be sure—because most of my sources were too old and fragile to be photocopied, I spent much of the ten days meticulously transcribing verbatim everything of interest that came my way—but these were far outweighed by the opportunity to see the debates over regulation from many different angles and to really grasp the complexities of this topic for the first time.